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The fruits of packaging education

People talk a lot about packaging education—how there’s room for improvement, how it’s vitally important for the future, how the “brain drain” is looming as baby boomers reach retirement age and take all their manufacturing skills with them.
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People talk a lot about packaging education—how there’s room for improvement, how it’s vitally important for the future, how the “brain drain” is looming as baby boomers reach retirement age and take all their manufacturing skills with them.


While such conversations are useful, they’re all just a bit abstract. So it’s nice to encounter concretely the fruits of an education in packaging. That’s what happened to me recently while gathering info for our FPA awards competition coverage. The winner of the competition’s Highest Achievement award was ConAgra (see pages 48 and 56), and one of the brains behind the winning package was David France. He’s the senior principal packaging engineer in ConAgra’s Packaging Research, Quality, and Innovation group. He’s also a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Packaging. He clearly learned a thing or two during his days in East Lansing, because the microwave popcorn package that he and his ConAgra team cooked up is indeed a wonderment. My guess is that had France not been the beneficiary of a formal education in packaging, this innovative container would never have reached a store shelf.

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I like this package for many reasons. Not only is it truly innovative, but it was also driven by consumer research. Focus groups told ConAgra in no uncertain terms that the pop-up bowl format would win market share. When that information reached ConAgra’s decision makers, they greenlighted the package’s development—even though it presented more technology hurdles than you can shake a stick at. And because, as France put it to me, “we’re vertically integrated in the popcorn area,” the technical challenges complicated not just packaging ops but package converting, too. All the same, ConAgra saw an opportunity to develop a package that would resonate with consumers and decided to move forward with it.


As with any ambitious innovation, surprises surfaced along ConAgra’s development trail. None was more vexing than the discovery that once the complex lamination was complete, the finished rolls proved difficult to handle during shipment from ConAgra’s converting plant to its popcorn packaging plants. “The operations folks were not exactly thrilled,” notes France. But again, ConAgra’s development team would not be deterred. They came up with a temporary solution while engineering a permanent fix: reusable totes.


Another reason to like this package is that it represents a case where packaging is the product differentiator. Kudos to ConAgra for being willing to absorb a slight upcharge in the cost of its packaging materials based on the belief that better packaging will drive a big enough increase in sales to offset the increase in cost of materials.


Elsewhere in our FPA awards coverage, you’ll read about another innovative winner, this one from the fresh red meat category. The FreshCase technology used for H.E.B.’s Texas Beef brand could dramatically reduce the amount of beef that’s thrown away today while making an important contribution to sustainable packaging at the same time.


My only “beef” with H.E.B. is this: Why include the PVC/EVOH tray and the film label? The beef cuts could have been vacuum packaged in just flexible film and given a pressure-sensitive label for branding purposes and other messaging. That would have registered even higher on the sustainable packaging scorecard. Seems like a missed opportunity to me.


In any event, congratulations to all the FPA award winners on both the supply and the end-user side. The spirit of innovation—and in ConAgra’s case, the fruits of package education—shines in your work.

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